A Scientific view of life and death

Posted: 17/04/2011 in Philosophy, Science
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

It is appropriate to look at the issues on Life, death, Life after death from an alternate angle based on the hard earned objective insights gained through scientific thinking that has and continues to revolutionize our thoughts. It must be understood in clear terms that scientific insights are consensus based as they are rooted in objective evidence and rational thinking and hence crosses cultural, religious and racial boundaries. Let me now proceed with these profound questions, What is Life? What is the purpose of life? Is there life after death? Why do we die? These are old questions although the meaning of the questions (and of course the answers) have changed over the years in view of a wealth of insights gained thanks to the revolutionary way scientific thinking has changed human perceptions and knowledge and the remarkable discoveries and insights that it has led to and is still leading to.

To briefly phrase the best known scientific answer today in scientific jargon : “Life is a dissipative structure that has achieved the threshold of complexity to become an autopoietic system.” The purpose of life is to faithfully obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics by increasing entropy (Even eating and sex are dictated by this requirement, although our brain translates it into a sense of desire and pleasure for us, hiding the real underlying purpose from our conscious mind). Why do we die? In short because we have inherited through evolution death genes from our protist (single celled organisms with nucleus) ancestors that took to reproduction through sex purely due to a better evolutionary survival strategy in tough primitive environments. Death is brought about in a programmed way by certain genes (death genes). Those few life forms (bacteria) that did not and still do not reproduce sexually are immortal, barring accidental deaths. Is there life after death? How can one define life AFTER death to begin with? If that new Life after death must require the same material body then what age should that body be?  The question of Life after death is rooted in the human refusal to accept death as the ultimate termination of their identity. This fear of death and urge for immortality results from Self-Awareness, a necessary attribute of human consciousness which makes us distinct from other species, whose primary instincts are propagation, and avoiding dangers so as to successfully pass their genes to net generation. A conscious anxiety due to awareness of death is not present in other animals. Now If life is defined as the genetic code (Which after all directs growth of our body and brain), the program of our living body then yes there is life after death, just as a software program exists independent of the physical computer and after the program has stopped running. Our bodies die, but our genes (and thus genetic code) live on through propagation. And if one does not leave any offspring, one can preserve his/her life by doing a complete genome sequence and saving it for eternity as an information in a database. Someday if biotechnology is sufficiently advanced, a resurrection may not be that far fetched an idea. Although the resurrected human will not be an exact replica of the original, since the brain wiring is shaped principally by environmental stimulus, which can never be the same in every rerun of the program of life. That’s why we say that human nature is part(mostly) genetic, part environmental.

The questions of life, death and immortality have intrigued humanity since the dawn of civilization when consciousness evolved to a mature state in the human brain from the more primitive reptilian brain. This is a question whose complete answer has not and will not be answered in one sweeping breakthrough or by one human in a finite time. Neither should this profound question of humanity be curtly dismissed with “It is God’s miracle, its beyond human comprehension” type of answers. The fundamental fact is that the answer lies in an incremental approach to THE truth rather than a complete grasp of it. Like the geometric idea of an asymptote, to which a curve gets closer and closer to but never quite reaches it, truth about the nature of life and death is a slowly unravelling secret/insight. One can get closer and closer to the truth. A lot has been learned already. Very few of us laymen actually are aware of the rapid increase in understanding that has been going on. We only get a jolt when a flash of news are thrown at us, for example, cloning of the sheep Dolly, the completion of the human genome project, continued development of gene therapy etc. First of all it must be understood that saying that Life is the miraculous work of a Divine creator does not “explain” life, it only puts a closure to the quest for the answer and allows human to go about mundane pursuits so as not to be distressed by the failure to understand it. It is a common human instinct to put a closure to any unresolved questions. one feels uneasy living with mysteries and unanswered questions. A scientific inquiry must go against this instinct and strive for further insights, incremental advance being the goal, not a closure necessarily. That was then, millennia ago when our intellects were primitive that such simplistic answers were put forth. But humanity have come a long way since then. Engaging in vague metaphysics does not get us much further in the quest for truth. Now a genuine understanding should involve a scientific study spanning across a host of disciplines. Although we don’t know the full answer to these questions we do know that a lot of insight into life has been gained and also know where to look for them.

Every day a new insight is being added to the knowledge base and getting us incrementally closer to the final understanding. Quantum jumps of insight do occur in history. For example Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, Mendel’s theory of heredity and most importantly the almost legendary discovery of DNA and deciphering of the genetic code in 1953. The experiments of Urey and Miller showed how chemical and physical process can create the ingredients of life if not life itself(as yet). These are facts of life that are universal and crosses all religious boundaries, unlike religious “explanations” of life. Although Darwin explained beautifully how life evolved from simple to the complex but only vaguely mentioned about a possible mechanism of the origin of life itself (The primitive pond). The first scientific attempt to understand the origin of Life was by the Russian scientist Oparin in his 1929 classic “The Origin of Life”. He extended the Darwinian theory of evolution backward in time to explain how simple organic and inorganic materials might have combined into complex organic compounds and how the latter might have formed the primordial organism. The first attempt to understand life in a more fundamental way was by the nobel laureate physicist none other than the founder of quantum physics Erwin Schroedinger in his epoch making book “What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell With Mind and Matter” written more than fifty years ago. He anticipated DNA in that book even before its discovery (He called it some kind of aperiodic crystal).  About fifty years later another physicist from Princeton, Freeman Dyson improved upon Schrodinger’s idea and wrote the book “Origins of Life“. His ideas have been based on much more insights gained in Biology and Physics since Schrodinger and others. There has been a continued increase in our understanding of life and its origins by scientists all around the world. One of the most creative of them all was the Sri Lankan born American chemist/biologist Ponnamperuma who was able to produce ATP, one of the fundamental building block of DNA, and thus life. Another pioneer in life research is Nobel Laureate Eigen. He was able to induce (chemically) RNA molecules to replicate in the lab. This is very close to producing a virus. Viruses are in between living and non-living.

At the base of it all is the most profound aspect of life which is the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the law of increase of entropy. In fact the purpose of life if one has to find one is to satisfy the second law and to maximize entropy production. The main attribute of life is autopoiesis, a tendency of aggregate molecules of matter to maintain its identity through metabolism and replication/reproduction. And autopoiesis is the inevitable result of a dissipative system trying to maintain its far from equilibrium (thermodynamic) state to maximize entropy generation. A dissipative system is one that requires continuous input of energy to maintain itself. The more advanced life becomes the more it will have to generate entropy (through waste products). This is the mystery of life. Our desire to live, lust, hunger is nothing but a very advanced manifestation of the laws of physics at work at the cell level. About death, biologists have found that death is the result of sex. As Richard Dawkins, author of the legendary “The selfish Gene” says, death is the first sexually transmitted disease. Bacteria are not sexual. They reproduce asexually. They never die. They are truly immortal. When the primitive unicellular bacterial ancestor of all animals (protists) first switched to sexual mode of reproduction death was an inevitable consequence. We have traded immortality for sexual pleasure. While current insight from molecular bilogy do suggest that longevity may be controlled by the telomerese in chromosomes, but death cannot be completely prevented. Life is not simply an entity created from scratch from conception to birth.

Life is an evolving process that has been going on over billions of years in an incremental way. Our body may have been formed in matter of years after conception, but the program (our genome sequence) that builds us (our body+mind) has taken billions of years to perfect. The most insightful discovery by Darwin was that natural selection and mutation can give rise to a complex life form as human through a prolonged and cumulative action of those laws. The complicated body and brain of ours are not just a creation from our birth to date. We have inherited the blueprint of life (the genetic code) that has evolved and perfected through billions of years of evolution. That’s why life is so precious. It contains huge information collected over an incredibly long span of time. Our genome sequence will take thousands of pages to write down in paper. Like a complex software that starts with few simple lines but eventually is perfected into a sophisticated program of millions of lines with contributions from many people over a long time, the genetic code of life took billions of years to be developed and is still evolving. Life will look different and more advanced in another million years. We can never understand life without understanding the history of how life has evolved from the primordial earth with single cells becoming more and more complex by incremental steps. But the process of this evolution of life from simple to complex is purely natural. Down at the bottom it is nothing but physics. Natural selection and mutation is nothing more than a manifestation of the laws of Physics at work on cell/gene level.

Humans cannot make a naturally beautiful snowflake or a natural gemstone with beautiful patterns either. But we know these are all results of the Laws of Physics. Similarly, life, in all its complexity, impossible for humans to create, is nothing but the result of the laws of Physics, although acting over a long (billions of years) period of time, unlike snowflakes where it acts over a much shorter time span. If there has to be a divine designer for life then it is the Laws of Physics. A beautiful snowflake with its artistic and symmetric pattern is just a result of the laws of thermodynamics and Quantum mechanics. So is life. Life is an EMERGENT behaviour of matter. Life is a result of self organization of matter driven by the requirements to maximize entropy and reduce the gradient of temperature difference between sun and earth. What is the origin of the laws of physics? Here we reach the wall. If one really has to contemplate a designer, then its the law of Physics that one has to wonder who is the designer of.

There is no reason to assume that the phenomenon of life cannot be ever understood in terms of natural laws. The fact that we do not completely understand it now does not imply that it is not understandable in physical terms. We don’t understand weather too, in spite of all the technical advances. This lack of understanding is rooted in the complexity of weather and life. The chain of reasoning based on laws of physics that links a simple molecule to a living organism is broken in the middle due to the enormous complexity of cumulative effects of over billions of years of evolution. In weather, it is the enormous number of air molecules that is at the root of complexity preventing an exact understanding. Trying to understand life however in itself is no trivial a task. After all, its the journey, not the destination that is fulfilling. If there at all one has to find any meaning of this finite life then the best candidate for meaning is the search to find the answers to how life has evolved and will evolve. This is the best use humans can make of their “gift” of consciousness, a gift since it was after all not required by evolution for survival, but came as a by product. If one has to speak of teleology then I think it is best to say we have acquired consciousness so that we can ask how we came about and answer it by understanding the very laws of nature that are at work behind all this marvelous creations (including ourselves) and evolution. The most intriguing thing about consciousness is that it satisfies a consistency loop (Here “->” means gives rise to or explains): Physical laws -> matter -> Life ->Consciousness -> Physical Laws. If one believes in God, what could be a better pursuit than to try to understand and discover the wonderful Laws of nature, reading the mind of God in the words of Stephen Hawking?

  1. ram0ram says:

    dear and divine…. very nice spiritual and scientific post…..

    Eternity is dancing on eternity like football.

    Everything has an eternal space inside and outside.

    Birth is like start of the film , death is like end of the film , life is to watch the film to know our roles and God’s part.

    love all…

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